Once, we came of age under the shadow of something called a Permanent Record. Nobody ever actually saw one, but as youngsters, we understood we had to keep our own clean, since stains could do lasting damage.
Plainly, the idea of an authoritative, ineradicable ledger on individual behavior is a powerful one. Widespread, too. You see it in everything from the divine Book of Life to the gift list kept by Santa, who knows if you’ve been bad or good.
That permanent record meant somebody was paying attention, which was good, but it was also a dark and oppressive background presence, since it enabled even trivial sins to curse our futures.
Good thing it was largely mythic. Back then, actual record-keeping was spotty, and technology had zero ability to corral the manifold tracks that we each left into some all-knowing compendium.
No longer. Welcome to the digital age. Its mighty search engines have spawned a virtual permanent record for millions of individuals. It’s updated constantly, lasts forever, and is in full-time public view.
What gets in it and with what prominence — those are mysteries, depending on the alchemy of particular search engines. Generally, they suck up most anything about someone that was published or resides in Internet-accessible public records. (The search engines don’t scour social media like Twitter and Facebook, yet.)
That means the fraternity house dustup that led to a sleepover in jail, or the rude remark at a political rally, or any of a thousand missteps and embarrassments that in a pre-modern age would have faded into oblivion — debris from what Justice John Paul Stevens called the “practical obscurity” we used to inhabit — remain vivid, alive and, potentially, toxic.
Hence, the importance of last month’s ruling by Europe’s highest court. It authorizes people to demand that links to material that threatens their privacy be scrubbed from search results.